School Design

What Makes an International School?


Isn’t it inspiring to surround yourself with brilliant people?

I recently a paper written by people I’m honoured to call friends, fellow teachers, and former classmates on the distinguishing features of international schools. Within their paper, the most compelling definition and seemingly the most widely-used factor is whether or not a school adopts a national curriculum that is different from the host country where the school is located.

I’m glad this question was raised. As someone somewhat outside of the international school scene, when I describe my degree program, people frequently ask what an international school is, and I find myself referencing well-known international schools instead of forthrightly answering the question (“You know, like the American School of Paris. Or Whittier Elementary in Boulder.”). Some people who are in the education world will assume it’s an IB-based curriculum and I nod and say yes, that, too. Truly, I hadn’t/haven’t given it much thought!

Because I work in global education and primarily with rural communities, one thing that I find myself frequently wondering is whether or not there is a supposition of superiority inherent to international school systems. That is, is the curriculum of the host country “not good enough” for the families who have relocated to work in an embassy/NGO/aid work/insert-international-career-here. I had this thought when I first learned about international schools in Kathmandu– I know, that sounds terrible on my part. I thought international schools were a snooty alternative to families who didn’t want their kids going to traditional school in Nepal. But, of course, this was completely ignorant on my part. Not until I realized that in fact, in the United States, there are many British primary schools in Colorado… or the Chinese American School in San Francisco…. Or Japanese schools in New York…. And so forth. My ethnocentricity was a barrier in understanding these schools.

After defining an international school, I still wonder: what is the purpose of an international school? Is it to form community amongst other transient populations? Is there a hierarchy with respect to curriculum? What is the benefit of receiving a different national curriculum when living in another country? In the Leadership class, we read about the benefit of international education and the opportunities it can afford as intercultural environments: the exchange of ideas, perspectives, and an overarching embrace of diversity. So, in my quest to understand the original intention of international schools, I looked it up! As expected, many schools began from transient families living internationally as embassy or NGO workers, or otherwise connected to military and army operations. The curriculum was what families knew and was comprised of community members they knew, so it was a safe option. In modern times, international schools have grown to fit the needs of families looking for a competitive edge and to enhance students’ holistic development as a world citizen. Indeed, intercultural learning seems to play a central role and have an established value in the continued establishment of international schools.

Yet, I continue to wonder:

  • How do international schools impact their host communities/countries?
  • Is there an earnest intention to get out and interact and commune authentically with people, neighbourhoods, businesses, and citizens outside of the school community?
  • What is the responsibility of the host country to an international school and in turn, what is the responsibility of the international school to its host country?

[Photo by Andrew Butler on Unsplash]

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